“Whistleblowing is a crucial source of intelligence to help government identify wrongdoing and risks to public service delivery.
As well-publicised cases such as Hillsborough and the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust inquiry have shown, whistleblowing has become much more high profile in recent years, and concerns have been raised with us about issues ranging from tax settlements to GP out-of-hours services to the roll-out of rural broadband. A positive approach to whistleblowing should exist wherever the taxpayer’s pound is spent, by private and voluntary sector providers as well as public bodies.
However, far too often whistleblowers have been shockingly treated, and departments have sometimes failed to protect some whistleblowers from being victimised.
We have heard of too many cases of appalling treatment of whistleblowers by their colleagues, but departments were unable to tell us if those who have threatened or victimised whistleblowers had been sanctioned. When we spoke to Public Concern at Work they could recall only one case where an employee who victimised a whistleblower had been sanctioned.
This lack of action has a profound impact on confidence and trust in the system, and means that employees are less likely to blow the whistle for fear of what may happen to them.
In a survey of Ministry of Defence employees, only 40% of respondents felt they would not suffer reprisals if they raised a concern, and a survey of Department of Health employees found only 54% of respondents felt confident that they could speak up. Over one third of civil service employees do not even know how to raise a concern under the civil service code.
Departments’ own attempts at changing whistleblowing policy and processes for the better have not been sufficiently successful in modifying a bullying culture, or in combating unacceptable behaviour, such as harassment of whistleblowers, within their organisations.
Those who have come forward have had to show remarkable bravery. Whistleblowers’ fears of reprisal are often justified, and such experiences are likely to deter other employees from raising a concern. We heard from one whistleblower in the Care Quality Commission who was victimised by senior departmental officials, but it appeared that no-one had been sanctioned as a result.
Departments must ensure that whistleblowers are protected, supported and have their welfare monitored. There should be timely reporting back to whistleblowers on how their concerns have been addressed. Compromise agreements should not be used to buy silence from whistleblowers and instead should be subject to approval by the Cabinet Office.
All government employees should be provided with a route map that shows how to report issues internally and externally. Private and third sector contractors to the public sector must also be obliged to have strong and effective whistleblowing policies in place.
Departments should also collect and apply intelligence on concerns raised by whistleblowers to identify any issues affecting the whole system.
This issue needs strong leadership from the Cabinet Office to ensure that whistleblowing can work effectively, consistently and free from fear, so public service delivery can be improved for all.”